Love Will Tear Us Apart — when English electronica met Sinatra-style vocals — FT.com

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When the Manchester dance band New Order toured the US in the late 1980s, one of their song choices bemused audiences: a version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. “People,” said bassist Peter Hook, “just wouldn’t be able to understand quite why we were playing it.”

New Order, of course, were Joy Division — but Joy Division without Ian Curtis. The singer had killed himself in May 1980, a couple of months after recording the definitive version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Its posthumous release a month later sealed its reputation as in essence a musical suicide note. And indeed, the lyrics about a failing relationship (“Why is the bedroom so cold? Turned away on your side…”) are rooted in Curtis’s being pulled between his wife Deborah and his (possibly platonic) relationship with the Belgian music promoter Annik Honoré. The title nods to Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”; for Curtis, the “love” and the “us” had come adrift.

The power of the single — routinely described as the “indie ‘Stairway to Heaven’”, a record known even by people who are indifferent to the genre — comes in the contrasts between its separate elements. It opens with a fast strum of guitar, the drumming pushing the beat forward: the producer, Martin Hannett, recalled a furious Stephen Morris to the studio at 4am in order to capture him taking out his rage on the kit. Then a keyboard statement from Bernard Sumner of the melody of the chorus, that will nag obsessively throughout the song, making the eventual appearance of the title seem inevitable.

But Curtis’s vocals, when they enter, come from a different place: the band’s impresario, Tony Wilson, had encouraged him to listen to Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! and he captures something of that regretful croon, though his baritone is more theatrical. All through, Hook’s bassline insists on the futility of the flight towards which the melody aspires.

New Order continue to perform the song, once memorably at Carnegie Hall with Iggy Pop, a better fit for Curtis’s vocals than Bernard Sumner. From comments under videos posted online, it is clear that in some quarters the ignorance about how they relate to Joy Division persists. Peter Hook, now estranged from the band, also performs it with The Light, audibly hitting the word “resentment” in the first line with full force.

Indie musicians from Dave Gahan to Robert Smith have made faithful attempts. But the best covers have come from different ends of the spectrum. British soul star Paul Young included it on his breakthrough album No Parlez. Its release in 1983 came only a few years after the first release, but it was already a completely different musical world, as witness Young’s performance on the Channel 4 TV show The Tube with his backing singers, The Fabulous Wealthy Tarts, gyrating to Pino Palladino’s fretless bass. (It should be said that Joy Division had unlikely fans: George Michael once memorably stood up for them on a TV show against their sour fellow Mancunian Morrissey.)

Folk singers have taken the song to their hearts: June Tabor & Oysterband slow it down to glacial speed, Tabor’s low voice rubbing up against a rising cello line, and then John Jones taking the second verse, turning the marital tension from an interior monologue into a dialogue. The incomparable Irish singer Mary Coughlan, her entire discography an encyclopaedia of the multiple ways in which love can tear people apart, sings it to piano as icy as the Arctic. Nerina Pallot, by contrast, brought characteristic Sturm und Drang to her piano on a reading for the television version of Normal People. Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova version with the Brazilian singer Eloisia resonates with Ipanema waves washing in and out. The Norwegian singer Susanna Wallumrod strips her accompaniment back to ghostly keyboard whispers.

But not all covers are minimal. New Orleans’s Hot 8 Brass Band have a sideline in 1980s British classics (such as The Specials’ “Ghost Town”) and their 2018 romp through “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a rambunctious delight, anchored by a bassline from Bennie Pete’s sousaphone (Pete died of Covid-19 in September) and by a cacophony of snare drums and percussion. The video shows them marching through scenes of intimate life in their home city from the Warehouse District to Tulane Avenue.

The song has travelled, and thrived, a long way from Macclesfield — where Curtis’s gravestone (replaced after the original was stolen in 2008) simply bears his name, his dates, and the words “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.

What are your memories of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’? Let us know in the comments section below.

The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind 50 more of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.

Music credits: London Records 90; Spectrum Audio; Live Here Now; Sony; Topic; Hail Mary Records; Idaho Records; Kwaidan Records; SusannaSonata; Tru Thoughts

Picture credit: Redferns

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